William Cobbett, the son of a tavern owner, was born in Farnham, Surrey, on 9th March 1763. Taught to read and write by his father, Cobbett worked as a farm labourer until 1783 when he moved to London and found work as a clerk. A year later Cobbett joined the army and eventually achieved the rank of corporal. While his regiment was in Canada, Cobbett discovered that the quartermaster was stealing from army funds. When he attempted to expose this scandal he was accused of being a troublemaker. Cobbett, who had recently married, decided to flee to France with his new bride. After seven months the couple moved to the United States where Cobbett taught English to French refugees.
In 1799 William Cobbett returned to England. Three years later he started his newspaper, the Political Register. At first he supported the Tories but he gradually became more radical. By 1806 he was a strong advocate of parliamentary reform. An unsuccessful attempt to be elected as M.P. for Honiton convinced him of the unfairness of rotten boroughs.
William Cobbett was not afraid to criticise the government in the Political Register and in 1809 he attacked the use of German troops to put down a mutiny in Ely. Cobbett was tried and convicted for sedition and sentenced to two years' imprisonment in Newgate Prison. When Cobbett was released he continued his campaign against newspaper taxes and government attempts to prevent free speech.
By 1815 the tax on newspapers had reached 4d. a copy. As few people could afford to pay 6d. or 7d. for a newspaper, the tax restricted the circulation of most of these journals to people with fairly high incomes. Cobbett was only able to sell just over a thousand copies a week. The following year Cobbett began publishing the Political Register as a pamphlet. Cobbett now sold the Political Register for only 2d. and it soon had a circulation of 40,000.
Cobbett's journal was the main newspaper read by the working class. This made Cobbett a dangerous man and in 1817 he heard that the government planned to have him arrested for sedition. Unwilling to spend another period in prison, Cobbett fled to the United States. For two years Cobbett lived on a farm in Long Island where he wrote Grammar of the English Language and with the help of William Benbow, a friend in London, continued to publish the Political Register.
William Cobbett arrived back in England soon after the Peterloo Massacre. Cobbett joined with other Radicals in his attacks on the government and three times during the next couple of years was charged with libel.
In 1821 William Cobbett started a tour of Britain on horseback. Each evening he recorded his observations on what he had seen and heard that day. This work was published as a series of articles in the Political Register and as a book, Rural Rides, in 1830.
Cobbett continued to publish controversial material in the Political Register and in July, 1831, was charged with seditious libel after writing an article in support of the Captain Swing Riots. Cobbett conducted his own defence and he was so successful that the jury failed to convict him.
Cobbett still had a strong desire to be elected to the House of Commons. He was defeated in Preston in 1826 and Manchester in 1832 but after the passing of the 1832 Reform Act Cobbett was able to win the parliamentary seat of Oldham. In Parliament Cobbett concentrated his energies on attacking corruption in government and the 1834 Poor Law.
William Cobbett died on 18th June 1835.